Old Town Pasadena is just a few short miles from the heart of the San Gabriel Valley and its mind-boggling spread of spectacular and diverse Chinese restaurants, but it often feels a world apart. It’s not hard to see why; the pleasures to be found at Chengdu Taste and, say, Barney’s Beanery are pretty wildly different. But it appears the Pasadena/SGV divide is shrinking.
In recent months several mainstays from the SGV and beyond have opened branches in Old Town proper, including Green Zone, Boiling Point and Little Sheep, and now another spot has joined their ranks: ShanDong Dumplings.
The dumpling specialist has moved into a storefront on Fair Oaks, right next door to Der Wolfskopf, the German-style beer hall from the Goat Group. The room is larger than it appears from the outside, decorated in a sort of garden-party theme, with white furniture and a sunflower motif. There’s a strange, fenced-in area in the corner and what appears to be the remnants of a previous tenant’s mural on one wall. The décor is minimal, but you are not at ShanDong for ambiance. You are there for dumplings.
Shandong Province is in northeast China, along the coast between Shanghai and Beijing. The region’s cuisine features a lot of seafood; stir-frying is prominent, and they make use of both wheat and rice. At Pasadena’s ShanDong Dumplings, the emphasis is, as the name implies, on dumplings. They serve more than a dozen varieties, including ones that are steamed, boiled and pan-fried, and they have placed their dumpling-making team front and center, working in a window that faces out onto busy Fair Oaks.
The dumplings are great, whether your preferences run toward shrimp, pork and leek or pork with fennel, and the xiao long bao are pretty good, too, with sweet and delicious broth packaged within a tasty but occasionally too-fragile wrapping. The highlight, though, is probably the sheng jian bao, pan-fried soup dumplings that are slightly larger and doughier than the more popular xiao long bao. They come out in a pile of eight, garnished with sesame seeds, green onion and salt and laid out with their golden-brown bottoms in the air. The crispy underside and doughy flank gives way to a satisfyingly porky filling and makes a perfect vehicle for a dash of vinegar and chili oil, or a splash of the excellent house-sesame condiment, which is on every table.
The menu is broader than just dumplings. There are stir-fries and pancakes, soups and noodles. The scallion pancakes strike the right balance between solid and crispy, the stir-fries are flavorful but not overly oily or heavy, and the noodles have a satisfying texture.
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ShanDong is an excellent addition to the rapidly improving Old Town dining scene, a welcome change of pace from the probably adequate to mostly decent American-ish restaurants that have long dominated the neighborhood. Next time you find yourself in Old Town, maybe swinging a pristine white Apple bag or lugging crates of home goods, skip the burger and tuck into some excellent dumplings instead. This is what it’s like when worlds collide.
ShanDong Dumplings, 80 N. Fair Oaks Ave, Pasadena; (626) 365-1777.